Law & the Courts

Republicans Should Keep the Johnson Amendment

(Photo: Tommy Song/Dreamstime)
The political payoff of repeal is dubious, and there are strong philosophical reasons for churches to avoid politics.

The 1954 Johnson Amendment, though seldom enforced, currently bans tax-exempt groups — including churches — from directly endorsing political candidates. At the urging of some church leaders and with the support of the president, House Republicans included a repeal of the amendment in their tax bill, allowing organizations to make campaign statements “in the ordinary course” of their activities. This provision is missing from the Senate bill, however, and it is yet to be seen whether the final legislation that comes out of the House-Senate conference committee will include it.

Republicans should oppose such a repeal.

That assertion may seem laughable to some. After all, the move is supported by Jerry Falwell Jr. and other prominent evangelical leaders, and the caterwauling from the New York Times alone is enough for some to decide it’s something that Republicans should support. However, such a repeal could have profound unintended consequences.

For one, the ultimate partisan effects are highly questionable. The amendment is fairly narrow to begin with, mostly barring pastors from directly endorsing candidates from the pulpit — something that nearly 80 percent of Americans are comfortable with. Churches may engage in myriad other activities with political implications without crossing this line, such as discussing social issues.

While evangelical churches would probably see more political proselytizing in the aftermath of repeal, those congregations are already dominated by Republican voters, and many churches would probably continue to remain neutral in most, if not all, political races. And some churches would likely advocate for Democratic candidates. Mainline Protestant churches may urge their constituencies to hew to a more progressive view of social justice, for example, when casting their ballots. In this case, it may be that repealing the Johnson Amendment would galvanize more progressive turnout, not less.

The drawbacks of repealing the Johnson Amendment are not limited to the practical implications for politics, though those alone should be enough to temper the clearly political motives behind many pushing for this change. The biggest reason to support keeping the Johnson Amendment is to protect religion itself.

In 1835, French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville published Democracy in America. Tocqueville had traveled across the country to study social conditions and to understand how the democratic experiment was faring. One key finding of his is extremely relevant today: A close connection between the church and daily state affairs will, inevitably, destroy the church.

First, such a connection changes the church’s focus: Instead of discussing the eternal and universal, religious leaders increasingly focus on present-day occurrences. In a small way, this erodes the church’s significance. Second, the political connection creates nonbelievers from mere political enemies. Alienating a significant number of churchgoers and pushing them away from religion because of their political beliefs is not helpful to the church’s primary purpose of saving souls. And third, churches become linked with the inevitable upheaval that politics perpetually bring. As the tides of a political party, or political cause, come and go, so, too, does the church. The two come to be seen more as instruments of each other than as instruments of any profound and lasting cause.

Neither conservatism nor Christianity is solely about winning and losing battles in a culture war.

Some might argue against the amendment on First Amendment grounds, though it is unclear how the courts would rule, given that the policy applies only to churches that choose to file as nonprofits. Others will counter that we live in extraordinary times: The secular partisans of the 1830s did not agitate for the complete removal of religion from the public square, and thus a muscular Christianity is needed to fight back.

However, neither conservatism nor Christianity is solely about winning and losing battles in a culture war. Both involve more long-run considerations: respecting the inherited wisdom of institutions and great minds for conservatism, and, for religion, respecting the duty to the eternal and immutable. Neither is served by making churches into political-action committees commenting on specific politicians. If anything, they are undermined.

As Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard found, intertwining church and state affairs dulls the church and creates men whose faith is a lifeless caricature of what it should be. One need look no farther than the sad, empty state of churches across Europe to see what may befall U.S. Christendom if it increasingly hitches its wagon to state issues. The short-term, “Flight 93” mindset behind repealing the Johnson Amendment could make such scenes an inevitable reckoning.


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Alex Entz — Alex Entz is a Public Interest Fellow in Washington, D.C.

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